A Fiery Furnace Red

A Fiery Furnace Red

The full title of this poem is “A Ballad, Shewing How An Old Woman Rode Double, And Who Rode Before Her” and it is by Robert Southey. I chose it back in April, when Robert Lloyd Parry performed the M.R. James story “The Fenstanton Witch” and after that told the story of the old woman of Berkeley. James’s story references the story and Southey’s poem which I immediately looked up and thought, “Wow, what a choice for Halloween!”

And in He came with eyes of flame
The Fiend to fetch the dead,
And all the church with his presence glowed
Like a fiery furnace red.

Robert Southey (1774—1843)

Poem 187. A Ballad

The Raven croak'd as she sate at her meal,
And the Old Woman knew what he said,
And she grew pale at the Raven's tale,
And sicken'd and went to her bed.
Now fetch me my children, and fetch them with speed,
The Old Woman of Berkeley said,
The monk my son, and my daughter the nun
Bid them hasten or I shall be dead.
The monk her son, and her daughter the nun,
Their way to Berkeley went,
And they have brought with pious thought
The holy sacrament.
The old Woman shriek'd as they entered her door,
'Twas fearful her shrieks to hear,
Now take the sacrament away
For mercy, my children dear!
Her lip it trembled with agony,
The sweat ran down her brow,
I have tortures in store for evermore,
Oh! spare me my children now!
Away they sent the sacrament,
The fit it left her weak,
She look'd at her children with ghastly eyes
And faintly struggled to speak.
All kind of sin I have rioted in
And the judgment now must be,
But I secured my childrens souls,
Oh! pray my children for me.
I have suck'd the breath of sleeping babes,
The fiends have been my slaves,
I have nointed myself with infants fat,
And feasted on rifled graves.
And the fiend will fetch me now in fire
My witchcrafts to atone,
And I who have rifled the dead man's grave
Shall never have rest in my own.
Bless I intreat my winding sheet
My children I beg of you!
And with holy water sprinkle my shroud
And sprinkle my coffin too.
And let me be chain'd in my coffin of stone
And fasten it strong I implore
With iron bars, and let it be chain'd
With three chains to the church floor.
And bless the chains and sprinkle them,
And let fifty priests stand round,
Who night and day the mass may say
Where I lie on the ground.
And let fifty choristers be there
The funeral dirge to sing,
Who day and night by the taper's light
Their aid to me may bring.
Let the church bells all both great and small
Be toll'd by night and day,
To drive from thence the fiends who come
To bear my corpse away.
And ever have the church door barr'd
After the even song,
And I beseech you children dear
Let the bars and bolts be strong.
And let this be three days and nights
My wretched corpse to save,
Preserve me so long from the fiendish throng
And then I may rest in my grave.
The Old Woman of Berkeley laid her down
And her eyes grew deadly dim,
Short came her breath and the struggle of death
Did loosen every limb.
They blest the old woman's winding sheet
With rites and prayers as due,
With holy water they sprinkled her shroud
And they sprinkled her coffin too.
And they chain'd her in her coffin of stone
And with iron barr'd it down,
And in the church with three strong chains
They chain'd it to the ground.
And they blest the chains and sprinkled them,
And fifty priests stood round,
By night and day the mass to say
Where she lay on the ground.
And fifty choristers were there
To sing the funeral song,
And a hallowed taper blazed in the hand
Of all the sacred throng.
To see the priests and choristers
It was a goodly sight,
Each holding, as it were a staff,
A taper burning bright.
And the church bells all both great and small
Did toll so loud and long,
And they have barr'd the church door hard
After the even song.
And the first night the taper's light
Burnt steadily and clear.
But they without a hideous rout
Of angry fiends could hear;
A hideous roar at the church door
Like a long thunder peal,
And the priests they pray'd and the choristers sung
Louder in fearful zeal.
Loud toll'd the bell, the priests pray'd well,
The tapers they burnt bright,
The monk her son, and her daughter the nun
They told their beads all night.
The cock he crew, away they flew
The fiends from the herald of day,
And undisturb'd the choristers sing
And the fifty priests they pray.
The second night the taper's light
Burnt dismally and blue,
And every one saw his neighbour's face
Like a dead man's face to view.
And yells and cries without arise
That the stoutest heart might shock,
And a deafening roaring like a cataract pouring
Over a mountain rock.
The monk and nun they told their beads
As fast as they could tell,
And aye as louder grew the noise
The faster went the bell.
Louder and louder the choristers sung
As they trembled more and more,
And the fifty priests prayed to heaven for aid,
They never had prayed so before.
The cock he crew, away they flew
The fiends from the herald of day,
And undisturb'd the choristers sing
And the fifty priests they pray.
The third night came and the tapers flame
A hideous stench did make,
And they burnt as though they had been dipt
In the burning brimstone lake.
And the loud commotion, like the rushing of ocean,
Grew momently more and more,
And strokes as of a battering ram
Did shake the strong church door.
The bellmen they for very fear
Could toll the bell no longer,
And still as louder grew the strokes
Their fear it grew the stronger.
The monk and nun forgot their beads,
They fell on the ground dismay'd,
There was not a single saint in heaven
Whom they did not call to aid.
And the choristers song that late was so strong
Grew a quaver of consternation,
For the church did rock as an earthquake shock
Uplifted its foundation.
And a sound was heard like the trumpet's blast
That shall one day wake the dead,
The strong church door could bear no more
And the bolts and the bars they fled.
And the taper's light was extinguish'd quite,
And the choristers faintly sung,
And the priests dismay'd, panted and prayed
Till fear froze every tongue.
And in He came with eyes of flame
The Fiend to fetch the dead,
And all the church with his presence glowed
Like a fiery furnace red.
He laid his hand on the iron chains
And like flax they moulder'd asunder,
And the coffin lid that was barr'd so firm
He burst with his voice of thunder.
And he bade the Old Woman of Berkeley rise
And come with her master away,
And the cold sweat stood on the cold cold corpse,
At the voice she was forced to obey.
She rose on her feet in her winding sheet,
Her dead flesh quivered with fear,
And a groan like that which the Old Woman gave
Never did mortal hear.
She followed the fiend to the church door,
There stood a black horse there,
His breath was red like furnace smoke,
His eyes like a meteor's glare.
The fiendish force flung her on the horse
And he leapt up before,
And away like the lightning's speed they went
And she was seen no more.
They saw her no more, but her cries and shrieks
For four miles round they could hear,
And children at rest at their mother's breast,
Started and screamed with fear.

This poem tells the horrific story of a witch whose soul is collected by the Devil, with whom she has made a hellish pact and for whom she has committed all manner of wickedness. Her last-minute attempts to secure redemption are in vain, though she has protected the souls of her children (presumably by getting them into holy orders as a monk and a nun).

At the beginning of the poem, the witch receives bad news from her familiar spirit, a raven (it wasn’t just Poe that could use ravens poetically as messengers of ill omen). She takes to her bed and sends for her children who come with holy water and communion wafers to her side.

The sacraments are anathema to the old woman and she commands her son and daughter to send them away before she makes her confession to them. She dwells almost lovingly on the horrendous litany of foul acts she has encompassed and speaks with fear of the other side of the bargain: that a fiend will come to collect her to pay for her evil ways. Before she dies, she instructs them carefully in the steps they must take to keep her soul free of the Devil’s clutches: these involve blessings, copious sprinklings of holy water, iron bars, barred and bolted doors, bell-ringers tolling bells and fifty choristers and the same number of priests singing dirges by candle-light for three nights.

The first night and second night, these precautions succeed in warding off the hellish debt-collectors but on the third night, the infernal force is so great that the bell-ringers, priests and choristers falter and no bar, lock or bolt is enough to fend off the fiend that appears (“And in He came with eyes of flame/The Fiend to fetch the dead,/And all the church with his presence glowed/Like a fiery furnace red.”). It destroys the chains and bursts open the coffin before commanding the old woman to rise and accompany it. The fiend brings her outside the church, thrusts her onto its nightmarish steed and carries her off, leaving only the echoes of her cries and lamentations to alarm and terrify people for miles around.

Southey tells the old tale pretty much straight as it is written, but he conjures marvellous images: the old woman sweating in fear for her immortal soul in the fifth stanza, the detailed instructions starting in stanza 10 and going on for six stanzas before the old woman breathes her last—such a long dying speech that it ought to be in an opera.

He’s just getting started though—the next stanzas describe the precautions put in place by the dutiful siblings and then night by night, Southey describes the supernatural occurrences that build to the culminating horror of the third night when, do what they may, the combined efforts of the priests, choristers and bell-ringers are powerless against the forces ranged against them. The poem also evokes the horror of being somewhere and hearing a powerful pounding at the door, a demand to be admitted that one dares not answer.

Southey, who was Poet Laureate between 1813 and 1843 and is one of the Lake Poets (with Wordsworth and Coleridge), is more generally remembered for “The Inchcape Rock” and “The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them” (the one that goes “You are old, Father William”) but he is also credited with writing the original Goldilocks story and is thought to have coined the word autobiography and to have been the first to record the word “zombie” in English, so we can perhaps say that Southey transmitted the zombie plague, which brings us back to Halloween!


  • Read an interesting article on the poem at vamped.org.
  • Listen to David Hemmings read M.R. James’s “The Fenstanton Witch” on a YouTube playlist.